Rescued London Women Say They Were Held 30 Years
By STEPHEN CASTLE and KATRIN BENNHOLD
Published: November 21, 2013
LONDON — The London police announced Thursday that three women had been rescued from a city home where they claim to have been held against their will for about 30 years, and that a married couple who lived there had been arrested.
Ben Stansall/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A Malaysian woman, 69; an Irishwoman, 57; and a British woman, 30, were freed from the house in the Lambeth district in South London in October after one of the women contacted a charity that helps victims of forced marriage, the police said at a news conference. They said the youngest woman had apparently been held captive her entire life.
The two suspects, an unidentified man and a woman, both 67, were arrested Thursday morning and were being held in a South London police station pending charges. The British police generally do not identify suspects until they have been charged. The police would not say whether the couple owned the home, and they declined to elaborate on other details of the women’s ordeal or the arrests.
Although the captive women had enjoyed some “controlled freedom,” the police said, they had been forced to perform domestic tasks. Kevin Hyland, a detective inspector in the Metropolitan Police’s Human Trafficking Unit, said most of their days were probably spent indoors, though it remained unclear under what conditions and whether they had been held in more than one house. They did not appear to be related, the police said.
“We have had some other cases we have dealt with previously where we know that people have been held for periods of up to 10 years, but never anything on this scale before,” Detective Hyland said.
At least one of the women may have been forcibly married to the man in the house, according to an official close to the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media. Although Detective Hyland said that there was no evidence that the women had suffered sexual abuse, this official said the police suspected otherwise.
“The woman appears to have been through some kind of religious marriage ceremony with the male member of the couple that kept them,” he said. All three appeared to have been used as unpaid domestic helpers, but “manipulated” into believing that staying was in their best interest, he said. The oldest one, the Malaysian, had been with the couple the longest, 30 years, he said.
The story dominated the evening news on the main broadcasters and led the home pages of all major newspapers as Britons tried to grasp the idea that three adult women might have been kept as domestic slaves in their capital. A statement from the Home Office emphasized that the police still needed to get to the bottom of the matter, but also expressed “determination to tackle the scourge of modern slavery.”
After a television documentary on forced marriages was broadcast in October, the Irish woman contacted Freedom Charity, which specializes in helping victims of such marriages and whose work was featured in the program, according to the charity’s founder, Aneeta Prem.
“I can’t go into too many details, but they managed to get to a phone and make a call to us,”she told Sky News. “We started to talk to them in depth when we could. It had to be prearranged when they were able to make calls to us and it had to be done very secretly because they felt they were in massive danger.”
Working with Freedom Charity, police officers managed to track down the home where the women were living. They moved swiftly to free them, but then spent several weeks assembling evidence before making the arrests on Thursday.
Ms. Prem said she was still investigating how the women could have remained hidden from view for so long. “In a very busy capital city we often don’t know our neighbors,” she told the BBC. “We’re looking at people who were kept against their will in an ordinary residential street in central London.”
The women are at a secret location and are being questioned by interrogators who specialize in dealing with trauma victims, the police said.
“All three women were deeply affected by this activity and traumatized,” Detective Hyland said. “It was essential that we took things slowly in order to establish the facts of the period in what was alleged to be servitude or domestic labor.” He added that because interrogators were treading carefully, many of the details of the women’s ordeal remained unknown or were emerging only slowly.
Detective Hyland said it was “fair to suggest that the 30-year-old had no contact with the outside world that we would see as normal.”
He added that he could not say whether she was the daughter of the arrested man.
“We don’t know whether the 30-year-old was born in the house, but the 30-year-old has spent her whole life we believe in servitude or forced labor,” Detective Hyland said.